Rethinking Tunisia's Arab Muslim identity


In fact, Arab Muslim identity has never been key to Tunisian politics or foregrounded by any government.


Ahmed Medien
8 July 2012

Recent government proposals to open Tunisia’s borders for North Africans (except Egyptians) created a furor amongst the Tunisian public. President Moncef Marzouki’s timid welcome for these new decisions “pushing for more Arab and Maghreb unity” only drew more of a public outcry.

The decision didn’t strike me as it struck others. After all, free capital and labour will be soon a major plank that could help North African economies which have been depending on a troubled Europe for a very long time now. But Tunisians don’t seem to agree with me. The majority of the Tunisian people were against these decisions, each societal grouping for their own reasons. Many fear that new immigrants will take the jobs they don’t even want. Others fear bearded Algerian terrorists who might cross our borders just as the army is reinforcing its troops there. And, others just don’t want alien immigrants living next door or even voting in the next elections. Overall, most Tunisians are against any massive Arab immigration into the country if it’s not for work or investment-purposes.

So I find myself reconsidering what it means to be Arab in Tunisia and how much of this do we actually need?

The Ennahda Islamist party was the winner of the elections. They promised big and they won big. They campaigned everywhere and discussed many matters. They captured the camera lenses of international media crews and had the biggest share of media coverage. Another type of politician failed to make it into people’s hearts. They often looked lighter-skinned than your average Tunisian, driving fancy cars, constantly talking about money and numbers, racing from one big conference to another, and wrapping it all in an abstruse language barely understood by the populace.

Their Islamist counterparts knew far better what to do. They were certainly better geographically skewed. They knew the Tunisian geographic map better than anyone. Some of them didn’t have cars. Their French was often broken and they liked to inaugurate their speeches with “bismillah” or “in the name of God”.

They knew how to get to people. They simply KISS’ed it; they kept it simple and stupid. Free healthcare for the poor, more jobs in this region, social justice as God wishes, more religiosity and conservatism because this country is not French and because we’re Arabs for heaven’s sake!


Tunisians protest University of Manouba raising the Salafists flag

Tunisians loved that. Just in the middle of a political crisis, when some people including some rich teenagers were calling for a French-type secularism – the Tunisian working class felt as if it had to choose Arab Muslimness over any foreign identity, western mostly, that has screwed them over so royally for decades, backing up their dictator. Hence the outcome.

In fact, Arab Muslim identity has never been key to Tunisian politics or foregrounded by any government. An honorary title that allows some petro-dollars (or millions of dollars) into the country to build more roads, hospitals, and schools only trains up more young Tunisians who reject fundamentalism and reject the Gulf bloc in favour of Tunisian secularism. Probably the only time Tunisia has had to adopt an ‘Arab Muslim stance’ was at independence, when we claimed the right to self-determination back from France, basing it on our ethnic and cultural distinctiveness. Soon after independence, Pan-Arabists became target number one of the regime. We didn’t hesitate to break off relations with our Arab neighbours, distancing ourselves from their ‘immature politics’.

 “Arabs agreed not to agree.” I grew up making people smile with this phrase at a time when Arab leaders were calling for extraordinary plenary sessions in vain during the war in/on Iraq. Indeed, Arabs only seemed to reunite in times of war. The rest of the time they had conflicting interests. Some of them loathe each other. They have many differences, yet they shared one major common trait: dictatorship.

Tunisians, and perhaps North Africans, distance themselves from this. The average Tunisian joe knows anything about the Arab world or the Middle East, except maybe its major cities or capitals. Some might not even be able to point to Kuwait on a map or to tell the difference between Qatar and Bahrain.

So there seems to be nothing that could reunite us. As much as I would like to see a more effective economic integration between North African and Middle Eastern countries, this isn’t happening. Therefore, I think our relations should be confined for now to commercial bilateral agreements. People know who they are and they don’t need to be reminded of that in every political speech. The Arab Muslim identity should not be invoked as an excuse by some politicians to limit the freedoms of the Tunisian people that they have coveted for so long. We Tunisians don’t need to bow down before any religion or any ethnicity to be accepted by other people who are nothing like us. We are a great nation and we shall be the masters of our own politics.

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